In this portrait of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, readers learn how one of the most successful musical partnerships collaborated - and often clashed - to develop some of the most innovative and popular stage shows of the 20th century.
As the title and subtitle suggest, Purdum approaches this oeuvre as a fan, and while he is not afraid to be critical of some of his subjects’ work, his purpose is not to interrogate or recontextualize Rodgers and Hammerstein’s extraordinary accomplishments. Rather, taking advantage of the mountain of documentation already available and some delightful firsthand interviews, he meticulously recreates the environment and the atmosphere in which these seminal works were created. Purdum’s evocations of a war-torn America discovering and embracing Oklahoma! succeed in making that show seem as vital and all-encompassing a phenomenon as Hamilton 70 years later ... Purdum, a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, is a political writer by trade, and understandably has a much easier time parsing Hammerstein’s lyrics than he does making sense of Rodgers’s music, but to his credit, he gamely offers some astute musical analysis ... Certain preconceptions cling to the Rodgers and Hammerstein mythos, and Purdum doesn’t manage to shake our familiar impression of the two as an emotional odd couple ... But...his understanding of structure and character are on ample display ... In giving us access to the world that gave birth to them, Purdum’s authoritative and ultimately moving book brings these masterpieces to light with bracing clarity.
The deepest fascination of Purdum's highly detailed account is the confident way it fleshes out the real people behind these stellar triumphs. Both Rodgers and Hammerstein could be prickly, brooding perfectionists; both dealt with depression, and Rodgers (the lesser liked of the two, generally) struggled with alcoholism his entire life ... 'It is difficult to describe the inner melodic and mathematical workings of music in mere words,' Purdum writes at one point, and yet he does a fine job, drawing readers into the spirited, gossipy world of Broadway theatrical productions – a world Rodgers and Hammerstein so drastically re-shaped that, as Purdum convincingly describes, it's borne their imprint ever since ... Todd Purdum has given readers the most elaborate and entertaining exploration of that magic they're ever likely to read.
Rodgers and Hammerstein have inspired a spate of books and articles over the years, and anyone acquainted with this literature will traverse much familiar ground in Something Wonderful. But Mr. Purdum has dug up some fresh material as well, and the result is a neatly proportioned study of a reasonable length and a commendable clarity. Mr. Purdum mostly avoids that perennial pitfall of Broadway books, the exhaustive cataloguing of minor revisions and cast-changes as a play wends from out-of-town tryout to Broadway opening ... Where Mr. Purdum is perhaps most helpful is in reminding us of the bold breadth of the business—in the broadest sense—of the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership.